(Beirut) – Authorities in the United Arab Emirates should immediately release leading human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, Human Rights Watch said today. He was arrested in the early morning hours of March 20, 2017, and accused of alleged crimes that appear to violate freedom of expression.
The UAE authorities have not revealed where they are holding Mansoor or allowed him access to his family or a lawyer. Mansoor is the 2015 Laureate for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and a member of the Middle East and North Africa advisory committee at Human Rights Watch.
“The charges against Ahmed Mansoor clearly violate his right to free expression, and if the UAE has any concern about its reputation it will release him immediately,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting a prominent rights defender on these charges is yet another demonstration of the UAE’s complete intolerance for peaceful dissent.”
A March 20 statement by WAM, the UAE’s official news agency, stated that authorities detained Mansoor on suspicion of using social media sites to publish “flawed information” and “false news” to “incite sectarian strife and hatred” and “harm the reputation of the state.”
A source close to the situation told Human Rights Watch that at about 12 a.m. on March 20, a group of 10 uniformed police officers came to Mansoor’s home in the city of Ajman and conducted an extensive search for electronic devices. At about 3 a.m., the officers took Mansoor away, along with all the family’s mobile phones and laptops, even those belonging to Mansoor’s children, the source said.
It was unclear whether officials had a warrant to search Mansoor’s home or detain him, or which social media activity led to the accusations against him. On March 20, Gulf News cited official statements and reported that Mansoor had used social media “to publish false information, rumors and lies about the UAE and promoted sectarian feelings and hatred that would damage the UAE’s social harmony and unity…published false information to damage UAE’s reputation abroad and encouraged his followers on social media not to follow the UAE laws and portrayed the UAE as a lawless land.”
The report classified these as “cybercrimes,” indicating that the charges against him will be based on alleged violations of the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime decree, which provides for long prison sentences and severe financial penalties for individuals who criticize the country’s rulers.
In the days leading up to his detention, Mansoor had posted numerous links covering a range of topics to his Twitter feed. These included articles criticizing the UAE’s failure to release Osama al-Najjer, an Emirati who has served a three-year sentence on charges that included “communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information,” articles critical of the Saudi-led coalition’s use of force in Yemen and its impact on the Yemeni population, and an article that derided the Egyptian government.
UAE authorities should immediately reveal Mansoor’s whereabouts and allow him access to family members and a lawyer, Human Rights Watch said.
UAE authorities have harassed Mansoor for six years. In April 2011, UAE authorities detained him over his peaceful calls for reform. Before that arrest, Mansoor was one of 133 signatories to a petition for universal and direct elections in the UAE and for the Federal National Council, a government advisory board, to have legislative powers. Mansoor also administered an online forum called Al-Hewar al-Emarati that criticized UAE government policy and leaders.
In November 2011, the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced Mansoor to three years in prison for insulting the country’s top officials in a trial deemed unfair and marred by legal and procedural flaws. Authorities also accused Mansoor of using Al-Hewar Al-Emarati to “conspire against the safety and security of the State,” inciting others to break the law, and calling for an election boycott and anti-government demonstrations.
Although the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pardoned Mansoor on November 28, 2011, authorities never returned his passport, subjecting him to a de facto travel ban. He has also been subjected to physical assaults, death threats, government surveillance, and a sophisticated spyware attack.
In August 2016, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab reported that Mansoor received suspicious text messages on his iPhone promising information about detainees tortured in UAE jails and urging him to click on an included link. Citizen Lab discovered that clicking on the link would have installed sophisticated spyware on his iPhone produced by an Israeli spyware company that allows an outside operator to control his iPhone’s telephone and camera, monitor his chat applications, and track his movements. Similar methods for breaking into iPhones have been valued at US$1 million, leading Citizen Lab to call Mansoor “the million dollar dissident.” Mansoor is the 2015 Laureate for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, but authorities did not allow him to travel to Geneva to collect his award.
Article 14 of the Arab Charter for Human Rights, to which the UAE is a party, prohibits arbitrary arrest. In line with the mandate of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, detentions are arbitrary if there is no clear legal basis for the arrest or if the person is arrested for exercising the human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, among others.
Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights also guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for “respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.” Article 13(2) of the charter also requires that judicial hearings be “public other than in exceptional cases where the interests of justice so require in a democratic society which respects freedom and human rights.”
On January 16, authorities detained Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati academic and vocal supporter of the government, for 10 days after he posted a tweet that praised the UAE as the “Emirates of tolerance” but bemoaned the authorities’ lack of respect for freedom of expression and political liberties.
“The UAE is on an unrelenting campaign to stamp out any and every semblance of dissent,” Stork said. “Just how many Emiratis does the government intend to jail for expressing peaceful political opinions?”